“The rich are getting richer – I should know
While we’re going up, you’re going down
And no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne”
~ Randy Newman
Many superb poets became some of the top songwriters/performers of my generation. Growing up in ‘60s Flint, we listened to Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and others from Motown. We had Bob Seger, Beat Poet/DJ John Sinclair, Mark Farner (Grand Funk)…among others. One of the greatest, the incomparable Joni Mitchell, lived in Detroit for awhile and performed around the state. (Speaking of: like basketballers declaring the finding of the “Next Larry Bird” every year or so, the search for and discovery of the “Next Joni Mitchell” seems always on, as well… and just as futile.)
Then the ‘70s came along and good-hearted wordsmith Jackson Browne joined the list. “Doctor My Eyes” burst on the scene in ‘72 and in ‘74, Browne released his astounding album “Late for the Sky.” The moment I heard “Before the Deluge,” I was hooked. I was part of the Back-to-the-Land communitarian movement and Ecosystems Protection movement at the time (still am) and it was as if Jackson was speaking to us directly.
These lines from “Before the Deluge” sum up so much and are ever relevant:
Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour
In winter of 2014, I was in Michigan for the funeral of my oldest cousin. While back, I drove across the state to hook up with my pal, fellow Flintoid Jeff Gibbs, who was working hard on his must watch Eco-documentary “Planet of the Humans.” I picked up a copy of Jackson’s then newest CD, “Standing in the Breach” and popped it in the CD player. Again, it sounded like he was directly talking to us.
And you see how some things will never be the same
(And how some things never change).
Here it is 2021 – the hottest, driest year on record – and Jackson has a very good new CD “Downhill From Everywhere” on Inside Recordings. And, yep, some things haven’t changed. Jackson’s songs have always searched for meaning and asked the pertinent questions. They have always been unapologetically intimate and soulful.
The very first line he sings on the new CD is“I’m still looking for something.” And like much of Brown’s oeuvre; the search for Love, Justice and Tolerance is the album’s theme. This first song, “Still Looking for Something” sets the tone and keeps it in perspective:
I don’t mind giving up something
You don’t get something for nothing, baby
You don’t give up on love without a fight
If I don’t find it this time, it’s alright.
The next song is a classic rocker and a bit silly. “My Cleveland Heart” is about heartbreak and the acquisition of mechanical hearts invented in Cleveland. And, how once you have one, they “never break” or fail to “take a bashin’” like our fragile ones. It also has a surreal YouTube video of patient Jackson in a hospital getting a “Cleveland” heart transplant. It ends with singer Phoebe Bridgers eating Jackson’s old heart.
“A Little Too Soon to Say” is a fine song. It could have fit with any of Browne’s work over the five+ decades he’s been creating songs about both loss and hope. It is classic Jackson – great lyrics, fine singing and great band work:
I wanna see you holding out your light
I wanna see you light the way
But whether everything will be alright
It’s just a little soon to say.
“Minutes From Downtown” is another song in this vein.
Politics That Matter
I never bought into that ‘60s theory of “Rock stars as vanguard of revolution.” Nobody needs that level of impossible-to-live up-to expectation. But, I am thankful that some of them, like Jackson, have used their renown to push for Gaia, Human Rights, Peace, Racial and Gender Equality. Not a vanguard, but certainly deep thinkers and productive, kind and well-intentioned allies.
Some may think it odd that a successful, acclaimed, 72 year-old guy hasn’t retired and is comfortably resting on his many laurels, instead of producing quality musicaddressing serious issues in society affecting the marginalized. But, Jackson and many of his musician allies have always supported Justice and a healthy planet. His bona fides are many. He risked his career by writing, recording, performing and releasing “Lives in the Balance,” decrying the Imperial crimes of Reagan-era America. He has taken on the issues and has supported righteous causes. His friendship with Native activists and his support for the American Indian Movement (AIM); his friendship with Wavy Gravy and their co-founding of the SEVA Foundation; his co-founding with Bonnie Raitt, Jesse Colin Young and others of Musician United for Safe Energy (MUSE); being arrested with his pals Wavy and John Trudell…and thousands of others protesting Nuclear Power plant oceanside sitings; and, so many Benefit concerts for so many worthy causes – including numerous ones for our Ancient Forest Movement – place Jackson Browne at an honored place amongpolitically active progressive allies.
So it is not that odd that he is still at it. And this comes about after a 2020 where he contracted COVID (at another Benefit, of course), recovered, produced this album and now is on the road with his pal, another top singer-songwriter, James Taylor – finishing a highly-anticipated tour that was delayed a year due to COVID!
Jackson has always been sympathetic to Third Worlders and planetary environmental concerns. And this album addresses concerns about Haiti: “Love is Love” is a beautiful, catchy Caribbean-style tune inspired by Browne’s friendship with Father Rick, who works in the worst Haitian slums; doggedly working to improve people’s lives – as the lyric notes: “Here they say, ‘Hope makes life.’” The song also has a clever plea addressing overpopulation in it.
“The Dreamer” brings up, with very nice Latin-flavored music and some Spanish lyrics, the case of a young Dreamer who is about to get deported, after spending her life growing up in the USA:
And the walls we’ve built between us
Keep us prisoners of our fear.
“Until Justice Is Real” is another one. It examines the promise of Democracy and laments the passing of a lot of time without significant results, while calling for:
Putting your shoulder to the wheel
And staying with it until justice
Until justice is real.
Another beautiful, sweet song is “A Human Touch.” This song written by Steve McEwan, Leslie Mendelson and Browne borders on saccharine, as a pal of mine – who was forced to listen to it twice as I drove us to camp at a wild Cascades lake – noted. But, it rises well above that. It is about the universal issue of loneliness and common, crucial need of “connection, or maybe their own reflection.” The blending of Mendelson and Browne’s voices is so sublime. It and “Love is “love” are the two of the CD’s song that are stuck in my ears/mind.
“Sometimes all anybody needs is a human touch.”
The title track, “Downhill From Everywhere” deals with the fact that we all live downstream and upstream. All of our collective pollution is headed to the ocean. The lifelong surfer and dedicated environmentalist notes the connection and asks:
Do you think of the ocean as yours?
Do you think about it at all?
The final song is a long love letter to the city of Barcelona, the “City that ignited my desire, and temporarily, my soul.” It is a rhumba/flamenco-style song that also has some Catalan lyrics. It also addresses “Justice and Homeland” for Catalonia. The guitar work all thru it and especially at the end is magnificent.
Like I noted, not many 72 year-old and older artists are still at it. Some from our era are still prodigious. Some, like Jackson, Ringo and Willie believe writing songs, playing benefits for worthy causes, employing many musicians and others and touring for as long as they can is a sacred trust.
“Songwriting is a mysterious thing.”
One excellent side effect of the media’s fascination with such an accomplishment by one his age is lots of interview requests that Jackson has taken full advantage of to get the word out on many causes and the basic life questions he is known to sing about. He has been very good at balancing activism and artistry.
“Downhill From Everywhere” may not be the perfect album; we have his “Late for the Sky” and “The Pretender” for approaching that. But, it is a remarkable one. Jackson’s incomparable talent and energy is on full display. As a fellow 72 year-old, I greatly appreciate that and look forward to more to come.
As usual, the accompanying musicians are all top notch. Some are longtime Jackson collaborators and some are new. Jackson is very good at arrangement. As noted, there is plenty of superb guitar work and even some unusual instruments are present. Lead and background vocals are splendid. It is an enjoyable listen. Like I always note, buy the album and support the artist, all the artists and other folks who his talents also support and the causes he supports.